Following the February 2021 Myanmar military coup, civil society in Myanmar has endured an extremely challenging operating environment, made worse by ongoing civil conflict and the COVID-19 crisis. Civil society continues to be subject to attacks, arrest, and harassment, often justified under a range of military orders issued by the State Administration Council (SAC) in the early months of the coup. The civil disobedience campaign (CDM) continues, having evolved into more organized and militarized opposition under the National Unity Government (NUG) and the People’s Defense Force. The military is planning a large offensive for fall 2021.
The SAC released a draft Cyber Security Law in the early days of the coup, and enacted Electronic Transactions Law amendments, which implement many of the harshest provisions of the Cyber Security bill. The SAC is also planning to issue a new NGO registration law, likely in December 2021 or January 2022, which is expected to mandate registration for all national and international non-profits and civil society organizations (CSOs) operating in Myanmar. The military has currently stopped all registration and renewal processes until the new registration law is enacted.
Bank accounts of NGOs continue to be frozen and heavily monitored by the SAC, who are reportedly suspicious of financial transfers of any kind. With the banking system in disarray and transfers blocked, it is increasingly difficult for civil society organizations to sustain their operations amidst major funding shortfalls and the ongoing COVID crisis. Many are short-staffed and have relocated their operations. CSOs are still, however, the frontline for humanitarian relief, service provision, and COVID-19 services, and are actively working to support Myanmar’s people throughout the country.
Although the term “civil society” was introduced in Myanmar only in the mid-1990s, community-based and religious organizations have been active in the country for decades. Traditionally, community-based organizations were formed by young people in order to assist in religious and social events. One such organization, the “Doet Bamar Association” emerged during the British colonial period and became well-known by organizing an anti-colonial social movement that cultivated many future national leaders.
During the Burma Socialist Program Party (BSPP) era, which began in 1962, civic space shrank dramatically. Only government-initiated organizations could be established. Literary and cultural associations initiated by the BSPP in ethnic areas continued their activities after the 1988 pro-democracy uprisings, but some of them transformed into ethnic-based organizations, which continue to teach their own languages and implement social activities today.
In the early 1990s, UN agencies and international non-governmental organizations (NGOs) began playing an active role in Myanmar. With their support, local NGOs were established. Many of these local NGOs focused on healthcare and health education services, HIV/AIDS prevention, child protection and micro-finance.
In the late 1990s, due to economic challenges and social problems in the country, many charitable organizations were created, including the Mandalay-based Bramaso’s Funeral Service Association and the Yangon-based Free Funeral Service Society (FFSS). Funeral support community groups mushroomed in response to the need to relocate cemeteries from inside cities and towns to more remote locations.
In 2008, Cyclone Nargis fueled the growth of civil society, as sympathizers from all over the country formed local organizations to conduct relief work. Inevitably, some of these relief organizations were temporary and have shut down, but many others continue carrying out social work for people in need.
Since 2010/11, Myanmar has been undergoing a slow and uncertain transition toward greater openness, but with continuing restrictions on the exercise of the freedoms of assembly, association and expression. The most notable improvement to the legal operating space came with the enactment of the new Association Registration Law (ARL) in July 2014. The ARL was enacted by the Union Parliament on June 25, 2014; reviewed and amended by the President on July 9, 2014; reviewed and endorsed by the Union Parliament on July 16; and signed by the President and officially ‘gazetted’ in the newspaper on July 20, 2014. With the enactment of the new law, the 1988 Association Act was repealed. Efforts are underway to help support the meaningful implementation of the ARL.
|Registration Body||Ministry of Home Affairs|
|Barriers to Entry||With the enactment of the Association Registration Law in 2014, barriers to formation and registration were significantly reduced but remain somewhat uncertain due to delays in MoHA issuing implementing rules.|
|Barriers to Activities||With the enactment of the Association Registration Law in 2014, barriers to activities were significantly reduced but remain somewhat uncertain due to delays in MoHA issuing implementing rules.|
|Barriers to Speech and/or Advocacy||Several laws have been used to impede the freedom of expression, including the Anti-Defamation Law, State Secrecy Act, the 2004 Electronic Transactions Act, and the 2013 Telecommunications Law.|
|Barriers to International Contact||No legal barriers.|
|Barriers to Resources||No legal barriers.|
|Barriers to Assembly||Requirement to submit a notification to the commander of the respective Township Police Force at least 48 hours in advance; requirement of strict compliance with conditions imposed by the government; Criminal penalties in case of violation of law.|
|Type of Government||Parliamentary Government with 25% military representation (since March 2011)|
|Life Expectancy at Birth||66.29 years|
|Literacy Rate||Male: 95.2%; Female: 91.2%|
|Religious Groups|| |
Buddhist 89%, Christian 4% (Baptist 3%, Roman Catholic 1%), Muslim 4%, Animist 1%, other 2%
|Ethnic Groups||Burman 68%, Shan 9%, Karen 7%, Rakhine 4%, Chinese 3%, Indian 2%, Mon 2%, other 5%|
|GDP per capita||$5,500 (2015 est.)|
Source: CIA World Factbook
|Ranking Body||Rank||Ranking Scale |
(best – worst possible)
|UN Human Development Index||145 (2017)||1 – 186|
|World Bank Rule of Law Index||17 (2017)||100 – 0|
|World Bank Voice & Accountability Index||24 (2017)||100 – 0|
|Transparency International||132 (2018)||1 – 168|
|Freedom House: Freedom in the World||Status: Partly Free |
Political Rights: 5
Civil Liberties: 5 (2018)
|Free/Partly Free/Not Free |
1 – 7
1 – 7
|Foreign Policy: Fragile States Index||Rank: 22 (2018)||178 – 1|
International and Regional Human Rights Agreements
|Key International Agreements||Ratification*||Year|
|International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR)||No||—|
|Optional Protocol to ICCPR (ICCPR-OP1)||No||—|
|International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR)||No||—|
|Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organize Convention||Yes||1955|
|International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD)||No||—|
|Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW)||Yes||1997|
|Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women||No||—|
|Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC)||Yes||1991|
|International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of their Families (ICRMW)||No||—|
|Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD)||Yes||2011|
* Category includes ratification, accession, or succession to the treaty
The current Constitution of Myanmar was published in 2008 following a referendum. Paragraph 354 of the 2008 Constitution states as follows:
Every citizen shall be at liberty in the exercise of the following rights, if not contrary to the laws, enacted for Union security, prevalence of law and order, community peace and tranquility or public order and morality:
- to express and publish freely their convictions and opinions;
- to assemble peacefully without arms and holding procession;
- to form associations and organizations;
- to develop their language, literature, culture they cherish, religion they profess, and customs without prejudice to the relations between one national race and another or among national races and to other faiths.
In December 2013, the Government invited public comments on the Constitution to be submitted by December 31, 2013. CSOs, political parties, and other interest groups submitted comments for consideration. Based on the comments, the Constitutional Review Committee will initiate a constitutional reform process. The current controversy seems to focus on Article 6(f) (political leadership of the role of the defense services); Article 59(f) (presidential qualifications); and Article 436 (more than 75% majority needed for amendment of the Constitution). The Parliament has formed a Committee for Implementation of the 2008 Constitution, composed of 31 Members of Parliament and chaired by the Deputy Speaker of the Union Parliament. At the same time, a civil society-formed network called ‘People’s Network for Constitutional Reform’ has mobilized public debate on the Constitution and leading opposition party NLD (National League for Democracy) has launched a nationwide campaign on constitutional reform.
National Laws and Regulations Affecting Sector
Relevant national legislation includes the following:
- Association Registration Law (2014)
- Unlawful Associations Act (India Act XIV, 1908)
- The Code of Civil Procedure (1979)
- The Electronic Transactions Law (2004)
- Burma Official Secrets Act (1923)
- The Law Amending Income Tax Law (2011)
- Section 5 of the Emergency Provision Act (1950)
- The Labour Organization Law (2011)
- Social Security Law (2012)
- Regulations relating to the Right to Peaceful Assembly and Procession(2012)
- Law Amending the Code of Civil Procedure (2008)
- Guidelines for UN agencies, International Organizations and NGO/INGOs on Cooperation Programme in Myanmar (1st version (2006); 2nd version (2011))
- Telecommunications Law (2013)
- National Records and Archives Law (2019)
- Association Registration Rule (5 June 2015)
- Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Procession Law (4 October 2016)
- Media Law (14 March 2014)
- Media Rule (17 June 2015)
- Printing and Publishing Law (14 March 2014)
- Contempt of Courts Law (29 July 2013)
- Broadcasting Law
- Law Protecting the Privacy and Security of Citizens (8 March 2017)
- Counter –Terrorism Law (4 June 2014)
- Counter-Terrorism Rule (11 September 2015)
Pending NGO Legislative / Regulatory Initiatives
1. In the wake of the military coup in February 2021, several restrictive measures have been put forward by the Tatmadaw, including the draft Cyber Security Law, among others. Please see the “Update” section for more details.
2. The Government of Myanmar released the Draft Law on International Non-Governmental Organizations (“INGO Law”) in December 2017 and invited comment. ICNL has prepared an analysis of the draft INGO Law. Key concerns with the draft INGO Law are as follows:
– The potential for overlapping legislation could muddle the regulation of INGOs.
– The INGO Law impermissibly restricts INGOs through invasive monitoring, placing in question the legitimacy of the Law’s aim.
– The Law’s vague definition of INGOs could unduly restrict their permissible purposes and scope of activity.
– Arbitrary restrictions can be imposed through INGOs’ registration certificates and required Memorandums of Understanding.
– The INGO Law contains several vague and problematic prohibitions, which also serve as grounds for suspension or termination of an INGO’s activities.
– The process to suspend or terminate an INGO’s activities lacks proper safeguards as provided by international legal standards.
– The law imposes an inappropriate burden on Myanmar citizens and local organizations to monitor INGOs and report any cooperation with them.
We are unaware of any other pending legislative/regulatory initiatives affecting NGOs. Please help keep us informed; if you are aware of pending initiatives, write to ICNL at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The 2014 Association Registration Law defines an organization to mean a “domestic non-profit association, organized by five or more persons, for the benefit of state and citizens, in line with the fundamental rights stated in the constitution, and which is working for an objective or an activity or the common interests of the members” (Article 2(j)). An “International Non-Governmental Organization” is defined to mean “an organization formed in a foreign country and registered with the Union Registration Committee, with the intention to perform any social activity within the country” (Article 2(k)).
Public Benefit Status
Local NGOs are entitled to income tax exemptions; from the time of registration, an NGO can apply for an income tax exemption with the Ministry of Finance and Revenue.
The law does not, however, recognize “public benefit” or “charitable” status.
Barriers to Entry
The 2014 Association Registration Law envisions a decentralized registration system implemented by the Ministry of Home Affairs (MoHA), with six registration committees, including at the Union (National) level, Region or State level, Nay Pyi Taw Council level, Self-administered region level, Divisional level and Township level. Domestic associations may apply at any level, based on their anticipated territorial sphere of activities. International NGOs must apply for registration with the Union registration committee. Among the most significant changes introduced by the 2014 ARL is the replacement of the mandatory registration system with a voluntary registration system. Article 7 affirms that “Local organizations, upon their voluntary decision, by Chairman or Secretary or any authorized person of the organization shall submit application to the registration committee concerned stating the following particulars.” (emphasis added)
For those associations that do apply for registration, the relevant registration committee shall issue a temporary registration certificate within 7 days and a formal registration certificate within 30-60-90 days, depending on the registration committee, and following the payment of registration fees. Notably, the ARL sets the registration fees at substantially lower levels than past practice; previous fees had been as high as MMK 500,000, but are now set at MMK 100,000 (national level) and MMK 30,000 (regional level). For applicants at the divisional and township levels, there are no fees.
While the new ARL removes several key barriers to registration by providing for voluntary registration, simplifying registration documents required, and providing for certain safeguards (e.g., a written explanation in case of denial), the actual implementation of the ARL remains uncertain, due to delays in MoHA issuing implementing rules.
Depending on implementation, potential barriers to the formation and/or registration could include:
- The requirement to secure approval from the ‘competent’ or ‘relevant’ ministry as a necessary step for applying with the relevant registration committee. While the ARL imposes no such requirement, there is concern that the implementing rules could super-impose such additional requirements into the registration process.
- The decentralized registration system, while seemingly a positive means of facilitating access, raises concerns about the consistency of implementation across the numerous registration committees
- While it is laudable for the ARL to set a fixed time period for the review of registration decisions, a time period of 90 days for union-level review (relevant for those associations seeking to operate nationally) may be excessively long. (Article 8)
- The ARL does not provide any right to appeal a denial of registration; instead, the law gives the applicant the “right to inquire about the reasons for denial with the committee concerned and can reapply after fulfilling the requirements.” (Article 9) An inquiry with the same body that denies the registration is certainly a less robust protection than an appeal to an independent arbiter.
- The registration certificate is valid only for a limited time period and must be renewed every 5 years. (Article 20)
Barriers to Operational Activity
Prior to the current transition period and the enactment of the 2014 Association Registration Law, associations were subject to harassment by governmental authorities.
A key barrier to operational activity is the territorial limitation implied by the multi-tiered system of registration committees. Article 34 of the ARL requires that any domestic association seeking to change its status from township level to region or state level “must apply to the relevant registration committee.”
Registered domestic associations are required to submit an annual narrative report and financial statement to the relevant registration committee. The submission of the annual report is necessary in order to renew the registration certificate every 5 years. While domestic associations are not required to pay any kind of renewal fee, international NGOs must pay the prescribed registration fee.
Furthermore, the ARL requires associations to secure governmental permission where the association changes its approved activities (Article 33); and requires association to inform governmental authorities in writing of changes in membership, including the voluntary resignation or death of members. (Article 38)
Government-established NGOs or “GONGOs” may receive special privileges and create unfair competition for community-based organizations.
Barriers to Speech / Advocacy
Perhaps the most significant change of the political transition period in Myanmar relates to the freedom of expression. With the Censorship Board abolished in 2012, individuals are now criticizing the government and CSOs are advocating for politically unpopular causes. In addition, CSOs have more opportunity to contribute to law and policy making.
However, there are restrictive laws that are being used to hinder the freedom of expression. The Telecommunications Law (Telecom Law), enacted in 2013, established the regulatory framework for foreign investment into Burma’s telecommunications infrastructure. Unfortunately, the Law also contains a number of provisions that impermissibly restrict the freedom of expression. For example, Article 66(d) prohibits using a telecommunications network to extort, coerce, defame, disturb, cause undue influence or threaten any person. Similarly, Burma’s 2004 Electronic Transactions Law, Article 33, criminalizes using electronic transactions technology to commit any “act detrimental to the security of the State or prevalence of law and order or community peace and tranquility or national solidarity or national economy or national culture.” These articles have been used to jail dissidents, activists, CSO leaders and others for merely expressing opinions.
In addition, the Telecom Law, Article 77, authorizes the Ministry of Communications and Information Technology to order the suspension of telecom services in emergency situations. However, there are no criteria as to what can trigger such a suspension. This allows the government to shut down internet and mobile communications arbitrarily, which often immediately precedes crackdowns on peaceful demonstrators or other human rights violations.
Furthermore, the government and military use the broad language of Section 505 of the Penal Code to stifle dissent and punish critics and activists. Section 505 criminalizes making, publishing, or circulating any statement or report that, among other things, is likely to cause public fear or alarm and therefore induce anyone to commit an offense against the state or against “public tranquility.”
Barriers to International Contact
There is no legal impediment to contact and cooperate with colleagues in civil society, business and government sectors, either within or outside the country. Since late 2011, most websites can be visited from inside Myanmar. That said, the Electronic Transactions Act (2004) remains in force, and has been used to impede the freedom of expression, as mentioned above.
Barriers to Resources
An officially registered domestic NGO can open a bank account in the organization’s name at the Myanmar Foreign Trade Bank (MFTB), with approval from the Ministry of Finance and Revenue, and with a recommendation letter from the Ministry of Home Affairs. With a registration number and copy of its registration certificate, an NGO may also open an organizational bank account in a private bank.
Previously, there was no clear law or regulation affirming the right to conduct income-generating activity. In November 2012, however, the Myanmar Microfinance Law was adopted to provide a framework for the licensing and operation of microfinance institutions in Myanmar. The law is a crucial step toward providing the poor and marginalized with financial services.
In addition, the 2014 Association Registration Law affirms that, “Any registered domestic organization may accept support in accordance with the prevailing law, provided by a foreign government or international NGO or domestic organization, or any individual.” While laudable for the ARL to affirm the right of registered organizations to receive funding from foreign and domestic sources, the law may be implying that unregistered groups are not able to receive funding from similar sources.
Barriers to Assembly
In 2016, a new Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Procession law came into force. It requires organizers of an assembly to the township level police chief with 48 hours’ notice. Where assemblies proceeded without notification, organizers and protesters are arrested and imprisoned. Some CSOs, including the Yangon Student Union Students, initiated broad-based public consultation and advocacy process against this Act.
Even where organizers provide notice, Section 20 of the law allows police to targeted organizers by claiming they violated the conditions of the protest. Thus, even though the law purports to protect freedom of assembly, it gives local authorities significant power and control over organizers’ and protesters’ rights.
|UN Universal Periodic Review Reports||Myanmar|
|Reports of UN Special Rapporteurs||Report of the Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Myanmar (March 9, 2015)|
|USIG (United States International Grantmaking) Country Notes||None|
|U.S. State Department||U.S. Relations With Burma (2016)|
|Fragile States Index Reports||Foreign Policy: Fragile States Index (2020)|
|International Commission of Jurists||ICJ Intervention on the Report of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar (2007)|
|Amnesty International||Myanmar (2019)|
|International Center for Not-for-Profit Law Online Library||Myanmar|
While we aim to maintain information that is as current as possible, we realize that situations can rapidly change. If you are aware of any additional information or inaccuracies on this page, please keep us informed; write to ICNL at email@example.com.
As Myanmar’s military struggles to consolidate its control over a country in revolt, it has increasingly targeted a different type of resistance: lawyers defending political prisoners. In the past month, at least five lawyers have been arrested across Myanmar for defending politicians and activists, an escalation of the military’s assault on the judicial system. Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division, said the targeting of lawyers might also cut off a vital source of information about other detained prisoners.
Myanmar’s military has imposed martial law across more districts around the country following the deadliest day of protests since February’s coup. About 50 people were reported killed when troops and police opened fire on protesters in various areas. Protesters are demanding the release of ousted civilian leader Aung San Kyi. The charges against Ms Suu Kyi carry sentences of several years in jail and could also lead to her being barred from running in future elections if convicted.
Military Releases Draft Cyber Security Bill (February 2021)
The Tatmadaw has released a draft cyber security bill which gives authorities substantial control over all electronic and online communications, data, and online service providers, in contravention to international standards on Internet freedoms. The bill includes provisions allowing Internet shutdowns and service interruptions, and criminalizing misinformation and various forms of protected online expression.
Coup Protesters Jump to Twitter after Facebook Blocked (February 2021)
After Myanmar’s new military rulers imposed a temporary block on Facebook, thousands in the country joined Twitter. Many are using the platform and pro-democracy hashtags to criticize the army’s coup and call for peaceful protests until the result of the election, which was won in a landslide by Aung San Suu Kyi’s party, is respected.
Myanmar Editor Jailed for Covid Error (May 2020)
A Myanmar news editor has been jailed for two years after his agency reported a coronavirus death that turned out to be false. The country has reported only 199 confirmed cases of coronavirus and six deaths, although the low numbers tested mean that experts fear the true figures are far higher. Chief editor Zaw Ye Htet was arrested on May 13, the same day his online news agency Dae Pyaw published an erroneous article alleging there had been a death due to Covid-19 in eastern Karen state. On May 20, he faced trial and “was sentenced under section 505(b) to two years in jail” by the court in Karen state.
The Mandalay Special Branch Police have opened a case against a detained Mandalay-based journalist under the Counter-Terrorism Law for publishing an interview with the spokesperson of the Arakan Army, which the government recently designated a terrorist group.
New National Records and Archives Law preserves government secrecy (March 2020)
The new National Records and Archives Law is the opposite of the right to information. It replaces the 1990 Law but preserves the military’s policy that information is government property and access to information is a threat to national security. However, it has one improvement over the previous draft bill. The new Law includes a weak presumption that information should be accessible to the public after its secrecy classification has ended.
Myanmar students face charges over internet shutdown protest (February 2020)
A Myanmar student union said on Monday police were seeking to press charges against nine of its members for organising a protest against an eight-month-long internet shutdown in the restive west of the country. Around 100 students gathered in the commercial capital of Yangon on Sunday demanding an end to the internet cut-off in Rakhine and Chin states, where civilian casualties are mounting as government troops battle ethnic rebels.
Myanmar added to money-laundering watchlist (February 2020)
An international financial watchdog has placed Myanmar on its money-laundering watchlist, urging the country at the heart of the drug-producing “Golden Triangle” to boost its efforts to seize crime proceeds. The decision by the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) to include Myanmar on its “grey list” puts the country on notice to make good on a “high-level” commitment to strengthen its anti-money laundering regime. In a 2018 report, the FATF found “Myanmar faces extremely high levels of proceeds-generating crimes” and was “exposed to a large number of very significant money laundering threats.”
Planned archives law alarms civil society (July 2019)
Myanmar’s government is proposing a new law on storing records and archives which critics fear will restrict public access to state information. If approved by parliament, the law would make accessing information stored in the National Archives Department without permission a criminal offence with a maximum prison sentence of three months and K200,000 fine. Advocacy group Free Expression Myanmar (FEM) warns that the government would be in complete control of deciding who can access government-held information, even with the lowest classification of confidentiality.
Myanmar authorities must end assault on peaceful protestors (December 2018)
The Myanmar authorities must end their assault on peaceful protestors and immediately release three Kachin peace activists jailed for defaming the military and drop charges against another three charged with peacefully protesting a court conviction. The three activists were charged under the Peaceful Assembly Act for holding a protest without permission in Myitkyina, the capital of Kachin State.
Myanmar CSO Group Wants Arrests of Peaceful Antiwar Protesters Stopped (May 2018)
A national-level committee representing dozens of civil society groups in Myanmar asked authorities to stop the arrests of and violent crackdowns on demonstrators in the commercial capital Yangon, who have been peacefully protesting against the civil war in Kachin state. Myanmar police want to charge 17 organizers of a 300-strong antiwar protest on May 12 in Yangon with “disturbing the public” and staging a protest without permission from authorities, Reuters reported. The event ended in a melee between protest organizers and baton-wielding riot police.
Uncertainty, concern over draft foreigner laws (January 2017)
Myanmar to study Thailand’s media for drafting its own media law (November 2014)
Government says NGO’s doctors can return (August 2014)
Myanmar reduces penalties in public protest laws (June 2014)
Burma Bans NGO from Operating in Rakhine State (March 2014)
Myanmar’s Legislature in a Time of Transition (December 2013)